First a bit of a back story. As anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows, I come from a long line of professional musicians. My dad was a superb drummer who played with some big deal bands in his day and was great at not only improvisational styles (jazz) but also in traditional drumming and reading. He also taught from time to time, including me when I was very young. He was the sweetest, warmest most forgiving guy about most everything – except the learning process as it related to learning a musical instrument. He was a strict taskmaster who demanded commitment and dedication, and did not tolerate students who didn’t practice. As with most things we learn from out parents, I have done my best to convey the best parts of his regimen to my own teaching while trying to be a bit more tolerant of the way kids sometimes tend to be.
I think that what parents of young students of the guitar have to understand is that there is absolutely NOTHING in every day life that a youngster has experienced that resembles the physical act of playing a guitar. Twisting a hand around, arching their fingers and pressing down on sharp objects is totally alien – and painful, at least in the beginning. This reality cannot be avoided. The job of a good guitar teacher is to balance the rewards of playing (making recognizable musical sounds) with the physical challenge. Unless the parent has played the guitar or some other string instrument themself, he or she cannot be expected to understand what the child is going through in the beginning.
All the parent knows is this: is my kid practicing, or not? If not, why?
“Did you practice today?”
“Yeah, but it HURTS!”
How does a parent react to this? Well, as someone who helped raise a wonderful son and daughter I know that the first, gut reaction is to do something to eliminate or at least minimize the pain. Maybe it hurts because you’re not doing right?
The truth is tough to accept. Most likely, it hurts because Little Johnny IS doing right! Pressing down on the strings with what is often the most strength he can muster will – and should – hurt, until those little fingers get stronger and develop calluses. Many times I’ve had young students who have come to their lessons proudly displaying callused fingertips after a month or so of playing – those are the ones who will most likely succeed.
But if a youngster gets to the point after a month of taking lessons that he or she is doing everything they can to avoid practicing the parent may have to conclude that the guitar may not be the right instrument for their child. A three-year old can sit down in front of a piano and plunk the keys to produce something akin to a musical sound. Short of just strumming open strings, such is not the case with a guitar.
Does that mean the child has failed? Certainly not!! It just may be too early for them to see the big picture, that some pain early on will lead to better things down the road. My advice in these instances is to put the guitar down for a while and perhaps suggest trying to play in a few months or even a year or so. What sometimes happens is that a kid has a friend, sibling or other relative who plays and on a casual basis shows him or her a little thing or two. Without the pressure (real or imagined) of going to regular lessons a curious child may very well pick up a simple tune or two and then decide he wants to learn more. That’s where a good teacher should enter the picture.
Good parenting has always involved exposing a child to many experiences and one of the most wonderful of them can be creating music. But again, it comes back to balance. Turning a kid off from playing ANY instrument is much more tragic than helping that child to succeed with encouragement or allowing him to not succeed, without retribution.
Peace & good music,